Catholics from eastern Congo make cross-country journey to meet pope

Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer from his window at the Vatican, January 29, 2023. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Father Adeodatus Muhigi is among the Roman Catholic faithful in Democratic Republic of Congo's restive city of Goma who prepared to welcome Pope Francis last July, before the pontiff had to postpone a trip to Africa because of a knee ailment.

Now instead of welcoming the pope in Goma during the rescheduled trip, Father Muhigi will join dozens of other Catholics from the east, including victims of violence and natural disasters, who are making the cross-country journey to the Congolese capital Kinshasa this week.

When the plan for Francis' visit to the Central African Country, the first by a pontiff in 38 years, was revived in December, there was no longer any mention of a visit to Goma after rebel violence flared in the region.

"We were looking forward to it with great joy," Father Muhigi said. "It's not a disappointment for me, because it's understandable," he said.

"We know that it was in his heart to come to Goma, that is why he insisted that there should be a group from Goma, especially victims of the violence who he wanted to meet. So, we understand. It shows that he really wanted to come."

Eastern Congo has witnessed a resurgence of fighting between the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group and the Congolese army. The rebels have seized territories in a rapid onslaught and advanced to around 20 km (12 miles) from Goma. The fighting has displaced at least 450,000 people.

Father Muhigi said many of the people from the east who would meet the pope were those affected by the fighting.

"We have focused on victims - victims of the various wars, violence, and those who suffered natural disasters," he said.

He held a last service on Sunday before the 1,500 km (930 mile) trip to the capital, leading a congregation in prayer in a simple blue-painted chapel.

"Here we have volcanic eruption and war. He is coming so that we always know that God is here, he is with us. God does not abandon us despite our suffering," said congregant Sister Marie-Julienne Mwene Bikira, who is also travelling to Kinshasa.

In 2021, a volcanic eruption outside Goma left a smoking trail of destruction half a mile wide, burying hundreds of houses and displacing thousands of people.

(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Frances Kerry)

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